E.D.Hirsch, testing and cultural literacy

by David Safier

A few commenters have written about a column by E.D. Hirsch in this morning's NY Times concerning standardized reading tests. The commenters found themselves agreeing with someone who at least one of them has reservations about. Let me weigh in.

E.D. Hirsch is the big "cultural literacy" guy. He's conservative in the sense that he wants everyone to learn the core facts and ideas of western civilization and bemoans the fact that we've tossed lots of the classics aside. I find his idea both attractive and senseless. Though I would love to see more classical cultural literacy, I don't think it would work today with our universal education system, or at least not at nearly the level he wants to see it.

Back to Hirsch's column. He thinks our current reading tests are inaccurate, but not for the usual reasons. He says the reading samples are random and favor students who are most comfortable with the subject matter, not those who are the best readers. I love this example he gives.

[In a 1988 study], Experimenters separated seventh- and eighth-grade students into two groups — strong and weak readers as measured by standard reading tests. The students in each group were subdivided according to their baseball knowledge. Then they were all given a reading test with passages about baseball. Low-level readers with high baseball knowledge significantly outperformed strong readers with little background knowledge.

That's beautiful. As he says elsewhere, when you give inner city kids a passage about hiking in the Appalachians, they're lost. And my experience tells me, if students are interested in the topic, they can read and comprehend far above their tested reading levels. Culturally biased tests yield culturally biased results.


If I remember my testing history correctly, the original I.Q. tests were created in the early 20th century by working with students at private schools and seeing which answers the "smart" kids got right. In other words, the people creating the test already knew what "smart" was — including that "smart" kids attend fancy private schools — and they made sure "smart" kids got the right answers. Which proved they were smart.

Some of those early test questions talked about eating sirloin, a cut of meat many children in other schools had rarely seen on their plates and barely heard of. Cultural slanting of material creates a host of problems.


I agree with Hirsch up to that point. But while he sees the problem clearly enough, he suffers from the classic problem, "When you have a cultural literacy hammer, everything looks like a nail." His solution to the reading test problem is this:

If the reading passages on each test were culled from each grade’s specific curricular content in literature, science, history, geography and the arts, the tests would exhibit what researchers call “consequential validity” — meaning that the tests would actually help improve education. Test preparation would focus on the content of the tests, rather than continue the fruitless attempt to teach test taking.

His idea only works if everyone in the fourth grade, for example, reads the same books and studies the same topics in science, history, geography and the arts. In other words, he wants to see a standardized national curriculum. And I bet I know who he wants to decide what that curriculum should be.

That's where his idea breaks down for me. Should every class in every school in the country read exactly the same books and cover the same facts in history? This country is too big and too diverse for that to work well. But that's Hirsch's dream, and that's why his column raises all kinds of red flags for me.

0 responses to “E.D.Hirsch, testing and cultural literacy

  1. Since I mentioned Hirsch’s column, let me just recount my own experiences:

    I recall taking the SAT in October 1967 and coming across a passage that began “One’s first Chateaubriand is a wondrous experience.” I assumed they were referring to a fine wine. . . Then there was a passage about badminton. I could see then the upper-class bias in the test. I bet few people in my Brooklyn high school were acquainted with those subjects. I did get about 1300 on the SAT so apparently I wasn’t hampered, but I was weird enough to play badminton (I grew up in one of the few houses in NYC with a backyard swimming pool and we were the most affluent people I knew. Duh, maybe that had something to do with academic success.)

    Again, this is subjective and anecdotal, but less on the subject of class bias in standardized tests and more to the content-is-king statement about success in reading tests:

    I was 39 when, without any prep except reading the booklet the night before, I took the LSAT, which features reading passages and comprehension questions unrelated to law. The first passsage in my test was about the colonial African-American poet Phillis Wheatley. I remembered her from my undergrad Afro-American literature class and discovered I could answer the multiple choice questions without reading the whole passage. The next passage was on the Hudson River School painter Fitz Hugh Lane. I never studied him but my college girflfriend wrote a term paper on him that I helped her with. Again, I could answer the “reading comprehension” questions on the basis of knowledge without reference to the entire passage.

    Knowledge is how Jamal becomes a millionaire.